The small detail which earned After a fifth star is that playwright Michael McKeever consciously – and literally – employs Chekhov’s gun. (Chekhov’s gun is the principle that all elements of a story should have a purpose; i.e., if a show calls for a prop gun to be placed onstage, it should eventually be used.) The drama and force of the show overall, however, comes from a gunshot the audience never hears, an incident of teenage bullying the audience only pieces together through conversations among distressed parents in an otherwise orderly living room.
After divides this incident into three parts: “before,” “during,” and “after.” The story is delivered entirely through the perspective of the Beckmans and the Campbells – the parents of the two boys involved, respectively – as they wrestle with the situation and with each other. Each set of parents tries to defend their child, but comes to find out their boys may not be the people they wish they’d raised. “Perception versus reality…perception is based on instinct, and instinct is what keeps us alive” is a recurring theme and a repeated line. I don’t know what perceptions or instincts this synopsis might have brought to mind, but the reality is this: this show is excellent in its haunting nature, and it will stick with you long after the lights fade out.
As implied by the show’s title, that’s essentially its point: to illuminate the after-aftermath of tragedy, to examine the pain and guilt that still lingers once the media coverage has ended and most people have gotten their lives back to normal. In this respect, the first two parts pale in comparison to the third. It parallels the first – five adults sit in a room, discussing the lives, upbringings, and shortcomings of each other’s families. Where they were once impassioned and fervent, though, they become deflated, empty. They make it heartbreakingly clear that for some, there can be no normal anymore. In light of the very recent shooting in New Zealand, After is made all the more relevant and moving.
No one character even stands out above the rest; each actor delivered an equally stellar, affecting performance. Mia Matthews nails the jittery, anxious perfectionism of Julia Campbell, and the initial disdain one may feel for Tate Campbell is soon complicated by Michael Frederic’s poignant portrayal of Tate’s insecurity as a father and husband. This feeling comes in part due to Julia’s sister, Val Wallace (Jolie Curtsinger), who is called in to mediate the parents’ discussions throughout the show. Curtsinger is great as the (occasionally brash) voice of wisdom. Denise Cormier unpacks a similar complexity to Tate’s as Connie Beckman, who is critical and argumentative but just wants the best for her son. And Bill Phillips stands out as Alan Beckman for two main reasons: he is the key player in the “Chekhov’s gun” moment, and he delivers the line, “In the two years since Matty, there’s been, what, 62 school shootings?” If nothing else, that observation sticks.
The characters aren’t likeable (nor completely hateable), but you feel for them on visceral levels. The story isn’t pleasant, but it’s important. After essentially confirms the problematic nature of the world, especially for those who must watch their loved ones become the villains. It is a story not often told, but an affecting one to tell.
Don’t regret it after. Go see this show.